Born the same year as Paul Morphy, Ellen Gilbert, née Strong (April 30, 1837 – February 12, 1900), was arguably the best woman chess player and the best correspondence chess player of both genders of the 19th century! Known by every chess lover back then, she now seems to be forgotten by all except a few specialized historians. It is time to pay tribute to the first Queen of Chess.
If like me, you were not aware of the old Anglo-Saxon customs, you might be surprised by the initials “J. W.” instead of “E.” The explanation gives a glimpse at the sexism of the time: a married woman or a widow, if addressed as ‘Mrs.,’ was referred to by her husband’s first name, not hers. Hence Mrs. John W. Gilbert.
Ellen E. Strong was a teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, when she met John W. Gilbert, a local builder with whom she shared a passion for chess. The Hartford Chess Club was a typical 19th Century gentlemen-only club where the idea of a woman joining, even more so a woman of social standing, would have seemed laughable. This prompted Ellen and John to establish the Queen’s Chess Club, open to both genders, where Ellen was recognized as the best player. The local newspaper described her as the first woman capable of playing blindfolded.
Ellen had to turn to correspondence chess to find proper adversity while escaping the ambient misogyny.
The first woman chess composer
Speaking of problems, I prefer the following mate in 3 moves, composed by the Queen herself in 1860!
It was actually a mate in 4 moves, with 1.Qc2-c7+ Bb4-d6 as the first move, but I dare think it’s more beautiful presented as a mate in 3.
The solution is a perfect example of the then newly created Plachutta theme. I invite you to find it and post it in the comments.
Blindness and oblivion
Gilbert’s match against Gossip marked the pinnacle of her career, but sadly, also its end.
Gradually becoming blind, Ellen Gilbert quit correspondence chess. Like a handover, she waited for the 20th century to pass away.
Ellen E. Gilbert died on February 12, 1900. The Hartford Times obituary described her as “a lady of fine character, much esteemed by her friends, and as modest as she was kind.”
The chess world, which had relegated her to correspondence play, had already forgotten her.
It was not easy to find sources to prepare this article, and I’m grateful to the passionate people who wrote them.
read more on chess24
- “The Queen of Chess”: The Correspondence Chess of Ellen Gilbert by Neil R. Brenne
- Mate in 35 by “Batgirl”
- The Queen of Chess by “Batgirl”
- Ellen Gilbert’s Wikipedia page
- Hartford Weekly Times Chess Chronicles on Chess Archeology
- Yet Another Chess Problem Database
- Ellen Gilbert on ШАХМАТИСТАМ.РФ
- Yosha Chess on Youtube